August 30, 2011

THEY HAVE TO BE LUCKY EVERY DAY, WE ONLY HAVE TO BE LUCKY ONCE:

The death of Atiyah (Brian Fishman, August 29, 2011, Foreign Policy)

Atiyah's central role in the al-Qaeda network has been clear since the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point in 2006 released a declassified letter from Atiyah to al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. That letter indicated not only that Atiyah had been an influential player in jihadi circles for years, but that he had a freedom of movement from Pakistan into Iran that was, if not unique, then very rare. Such freedom of movement was important not just for communications with Zarqawi and the al-Qaeda faction in Iraq, but for communications from al-Qaeda members held under house arrest in Iran, most importantly Sayf al-Adel, who has continued to play a key strategic role for al-Qaeda despite not having absolute freedom.

When you consider that Atiyah reportedly was also a key interlocutor between al-Qaeda's central leaders and jihadis in North Africa (likely because of his ability to communicate with Zarqawi, who was the first al-Qaeda point of contact for the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC), as well his time spent in contact with Algerian and Libyan jihadis during the 1990s), Atiyah's centrality in the overall al-Qaeda network becomes clear. Atiyah was not the ultimate decision-maker, but he was the information crossroads.

In a covert network, the ability to transmit messages reliably is power. It is now an over-used trope that al-Qaeda has become a horizontally-organized network that communicates virtually, and often transparently. But the reality is that al-Qaeda's covert communication networks have played a critical role in the group's strategic evolution, as declassified communications indicate. Al-Qaeda's operators have been held together not just by the virtual affirmation offered on Internet forums, but private communication distributed carefully and covertly or in public forums using coded language and personas (see Atiyah's letter to Zarqawi, in which he references (pg. 17) an object known only to the two of them, an object that would serve as an identifier in online forums).

Trust also matters in covert networks if communication is to be effective. And Atiyah had that trust with many of al-Qaeda's key actors and affiliates; that is why he will be hard to replace -- perhaps even more so than current al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Zawahiri is a critical leader of the organization, but he operates within a structure that increasingly emphasizes the ability to move information rather than generate authoritative commands. In other words: in al-Qaeda, connectedness is more important than authority and Atiyah was connected.

Atiyah's death, if confirmed, will hasten the demise of al-Qaeda as a functional covert network.


One of the reasons W should have flown back to Washington on 9-11 is to illustrate the reality that none of us are likewise crucial to the functioning of the Republic.


Posted by at August 30, 2011 5:18 PM
  

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